DRC Briefing Report

Posted on: 30 April 2003

Last night I attended the initial briefing by City University the Disability Research Council (DRC) regarding the forthcoming formal investigation of 1,000 web sites in the UK. I was keen to find out just what it entailed; I was also intrigued to learn how many people would actually attend (it appears to have been organised very quickly) and who those people might be.

I had always thought that despite being labelled a 'formal' investigation, it would not carry any real legal implications, and thankfully (for many people) this was indeed the case. The term formal means that the DRC can carry out two types of investigation - a named party or a general investigation, and it's the latter that's taking place (a named party investigation would only apply to an organisation that is repeatedly 'offending' and is put under investigation). So, for the people who were representing large corporates, there must have been a sigh of relief. However, there were others who opined that there really needed to be someone - anyone - punished for non-compliance to shake other people up (to date there has been very little in the way of litigation in this area, at least in the UK, while in the US cases such as Southwest Airlines haven't really helped clarify the situation!). Maybe a test case is what's required. I wouldn't want to be the fall guy though - who would?

So, it isn't a 'naming and shaming' exercise. What exactly does it entail then? Well, the format is basically this - 1,000 web sites hosted in Great Britain are going to be tested using automated testing tools such as Bobby and LIFT. From that initial 1,000 a further 100 sites will undergo more rigorous testing with the help of 50 people with a varying range of disabilities, varying technical knowledge and all kinds of assistive devices. This is not going to be centralised, so it will be interesting to see how the consistency is maintained. However, some of the testing will be filmed (the usual usability kind of set-up) and a whole raft of data is going to need to be pulled together in some kind of presentable format. I don't envy Helen Petrie who has the task of co-ordinating this!

The aim is to go beyond the simple testing for accessibility (although those original 1,000 sites will only have the automated tests) - the notion put forward is "Accessibility for Usability" ... which to these ears sounds like another term for 'Universal Design' or 'Design For All'. I'm not sure I appreciate the differences, if indeed there are any. It's certainly true that getting a Bobby Level AAA pass does not automatically make your site accessible, and it certainly doesn't assure usability. The interesting thing about this study, in my opinion, is how clear the correlation is between sites that pass the automated Bobby tests and their actual usability as determined by the testers. Will a site that has passed the tests with flying colours be more usable? I suspect that the answer will usually be yes. After all, if you have taken time and effort to make a site accessible, the chances are you have a good idea about the usability aspect. We will see ...

Comments from the audience were very interesting and not too technical which meant most people could understand what the issues were without having worked at the front line of the web coalface. There was some concern that the outcome of this would be another set of guidelines to adhere to, another set of goalposts in addition to Section 508 and the WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This is not the case, of course. The findings of this report will undoubtedly reveal some trends in the UK particularly regarding how accessible government sites and private sector service sites are and will prompt some best practices (although from a personal opinion I wonder how many new tips and tricks will be gained from this study, but I am willing to be proved wrong).

The results will be published in November of this year, with the testing taking place during the summer. Those being investigated will not be told, so if your house is in order you have nothing to worry about. But if your house is not in order ... well actually you have nothing to worry about from this investigation. You will not be publicly humiliated, but you might get a call from Helen Petrie or the DRC if your site is really bad.

Helen has said that she will make the presentation slides available which should give you some more information - as soon as I get this I will post a link to it on the site.

From a personal note, it was a good night for me. I bumped into Julie Howell (as I always seem to at these events) and a number of other people who had interesting things to say about the topic. One was Tom Cannon from HSBC, who is in a similar position to myself (at Nationwide) because of the range of systems that need to be re-worked and the time taken to do it. Admittedly, Nationwide is smaller (national rather than international) but the issues appear to be the same - primarily trying to get accessibility retro-fixes approved in favour of a new service/initiative of some kind.

Dennis Kessler from rocketsurgery (recognise the phrase?) made it clear that he was all for companies being named and shamed for their inaccessibility - he argued that a set of new guidelines for best practice are not enough to convince companies to get on the pro-accessibility wagon, and that the reason why most people had attended was probably through fear of litigation (and this probably is true!). I also discovered, as I handed over my business card, that Dennis knew me before I knew him as he is a regular visitor to Accessify and he congratulated me on the resources that I've made available. It's good to know that people appreciate this! But he wasn't the only person I met who had a head start in this respect - I also met Alastair Campbell from Nomensa (not the guy from UB40) and Matthew Lindop from Web Projects who are also visitors to the site. So, hello to you guys ... and Alastair, don't forget about that Flash article!

Updated 16 May 2003: Download Helen Petrie's Presentation slides here